Feature Article - April 2015
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Big Thrills, No Spills

Safety First for Climbing Facilities

By David Mumpower


In order to earn certification, a potential instructor must be able to climb 5.9 on artificial structures and top rope 5.8. They must also prove that they are "able to belay with an aperture belay device and an assisted locking device in competent, comfortable and confident manner." A person must also demonstrate that they can teach and coach related climbing skills. The testing process requires 20 hours over a two-and-a-half-day period. Once certified, a person is considered qualified to instruct for a period of three years.

Most gym facilities operate under the assumption that having a single certified employee on staff is satisfactory. Dan Jeanette of the Climbing Wall Association, the original organizing body in the industry, notes that following this practice "ensures that each staff member has been trained to standards that are commonly practiced within the industry."

The presumption is that the certified employee will train other co-workers in proper procedures and practices. At an absolute minimum, however, every worker should be trained in first aid and the activation of the Emergency Action Plan. As the industry grows more popular, such certifications could become mandatory. A forward-thinking company will get ahead of the curve by paying for employee certifications now. There is a competitive advantage in having better trained staff.

Of course, there is an added expense in spending money on such training. In addition, a business must consider the cost of staffing, particularly with regard to the ratio of employees to climbers. The answer to this problem may seem counterintuitive, but there are more employees needed per customer at basic gyms. The ratio at these facilities should be an employee for every four or five customers. An exclusive climbing site will not be able to match that ratio, because it would be cost-prohibitive to staff that many people during peak hours. The good news is that it's not needed.

If you operate an indoor climbing facility, the customers are more likely to be a part of the climbing community as a whole. Think of them as power users who can make their own way for the most part. As long as you perform safety measures to guarantee that they are following standard procedure at all times, a lower staff ratio is perfectly acceptable. In fact, Johnston believes that ratios are only important for individual classes rather than general activities.

Another crucial determination a facility must make involves responsibility. Once a customer enters the building, who is accountable for their safety? Johnston, an avid outdoor climber, notes that the situation is reversed indoors. Whereas someone scaling an outdoor rock or cliff is in charge of their own preventive measures, it is the opposite for indoor climbing. The facility should bear the onus for the customer's protection.

"There are a certain set of protocols or things that should happen before the customer gets to the wall." Johnston points out that these responsibilities include getting a signed waiver, the duty to inform guests of individual site rules, the operation of specific local equipment and the importance of a proper belay check. A company is derelict if they fail in any of these regards. Only once these tasks have been accomplished does the user become responsible for their own safety.

In considering how to create an environment that is virtually risk-free, remember the origins of the sport. Mountain climbing and outdoor rock climbing are intended to involve a significant social element. A pair of climbers operates as a unit, with one of them checking the security of the other's belay then vice versa. In an indoor facility, solo climbs are much more likely. The standard practices should remain the same, though.

Once a person visits your site, they should be tested to determine their skill level. Anyone new to climbing should be expected to pass a basic training class. A couple of hours of training could be enough to prepare them for their first climb, but always err on the side of caution. A veteran climber will want to attack the wall as quickly as possible. You must still ensure that they understand the differences in your company's safety regulations. Then, there should be apparatus in place to identify when a solo climber fails to prepare correctly for their workout.

The most likely cause for mishap is an improperly tethered belay. Because the issue has become the most prevalent for potential injuries, companies have built their own safety gear to negate the problem. Jeanette and Hill both point to one auto-belay manufacturer's latest innovation, the belay gate. Jeanette describes it as "a physical barrier that a climber must interact with in order to use the auto-belay." In lieu of a partner check, it is a great way to guarantee correct tethering.

Another popular manufacturer has patented an auto-belay safety system. Its intent is to identify any improperly tethered climber on the wall. If this occurs, an alarm will sound and a light will change color to notify the staff as well as the climber of the issue.